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12 January 2022

Tom Harwood’s Diary: Taking on the right over the trans debate, falling for the Twitter trap, and Macron’s winning populism

In reality, excluding trans people from public spaces is wildly unpopular – and there is nothing better than challenging misconception in your own tribe.

By Tom Harwood

As the Christmas cheer fades and the bleak reality of winter sets in, politics has reverted to type. The most staggering aspect of parliament’s first week back was just how “normal” it felt. After six years of extraordinary once-in-a-generation political crises, bread and butter politics (in England at least) has returned. Energy security. Inflation. And the dreaded culture war.

So oddly normal was the first full week of the new year that you could have been forgiven for confusing it with pre-2015 politics. A Tory prime minister once again taking a battering from his right, a cost-of-living-crisis once again on voters’ lips, and a slightly nasal Labour leader once again enjoying a lead in the polls.

How to lose friends

A friend asked me if I had deliberately set out to lose friends and alienate people. It was said in good humour but I can see why – irritating my conservative following with what some might call a progressive (I prefer individualist) stance on trans rights, and antagonising the left by defending the excellent advice of Love Island’s Molly-Mae Hague, who told young people to work hard and believe in themselves.

I like to think I have been fairly ideologically consistent with these stances, despite aligning with different tribes on each one. Besides, chasing constant approval from the wildly unrepresentative and highly charged denizens of Twitter or YouTube is a dangerous approach to take. It breeds brainless hot takes and pushes people to the extremes. Some Tory thinkers are in danger of falling into the same trap as the Corbynite left: thinking that lots of retweets from angry people online is a successful electoral strategy.

There are some Tories in parliament, although as far as I understand it not in No 10, who think they have struck electoral gold by going after trans rights. They need to spend less time online and more time looking at the real world data. Misgendering and excluding trans people from public provisions are, in reality, wildly unpopular – not that you would know if you rely heavily on social media. There is nothing healthier than challenging misconception, consensus or conspiracy from your own tribe. And, as a former prime minister once said: “Britain and Twitter are not the same thing.”

Picking up populism

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On the topic of ideological consistency, it is striking how modern political tribes are so often inconsistent. It was entertaining to witness Nigel Farage wade into the Djokovic row and come down hard against Australia’s border policy, and to see Labour demand a Brexit-enabled tax cut (by suspending VAT on energy bills).

On Covid, some so-called populist politicians have jumped on the least popular causes imaginable. Anti lockdown and anti-vaccine stances are shared by a vanishingly small proportion of the electorate. It is hard to think of less fertile ground for populist-style politics.

Emmanuel Macron, by contrast, the anti-populist seemingly crafted in a laboratory churning out liberal technocrats, has delivered a barnstormingly populist (almost Trump-esque) pledge to “piss off” the unvaccinated. His poll ratings have, of course, subsequently risen.

Sheepish Sturgeon

I was shocked by the attitude of Nicola Sturgeon towards the Scottish Daily Mail political editor Mike Blackley, in a video that resurfaced this week. When Blackley asked the First Minister in December if she could do anything to help the staffing crises across various industries – by reducing the self-isolation period, for example – Sturgeon fired back with ill-judged sarcasm, saying, “Yeah, because that’d really help because that would spread infections even further and that would not be doing any favours to businesses.”

This juvenile exchange reappeared because, on 5 January, Sturgeon sheepishly U-turned, announcing that she would indeed reduce the self-isolation period for those who test positive for Covid. While everyone has bad and irritable days, is it too much to ask that more politicians prioritise politeness?

A wasted majority

I’m still baffled by the lack of direction to this government, despite its panicky backbenchers. Boris Johnson has not yet enjoyed the sort of post-Christmas poll bounce some were expecting. Perhaps it’s too soon to know if the decision to not plunge England into a further round of restrictions, while avoiding the collapse of the health system, has paid off. I think it’s more likely that Covid policy is becoming less important as other issues pile up.

It’s not hard to see why people are worried about gas bills and inflation. In December the ONS revised down its growth estimates for the summer period, long before the UK was struck by Omicron. And for the Tories, losing their lead on economic competence would be a dangerous turning point.

Sometimes it feels like the 2019 election wasn’t a Conservative landslide at all: planning reform abandoned, the tax burden rising to its highest level since the early 1950s and more U-turns than a tired and emotional minicab driver. Both the former Brexit minister David Frost and the Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen were right this week to say that the Tories are in danger of losing the next election and wasting their majority.

The myth of levelling up

This government has staked its reputation on “levelling up” but as of yet has offered no clues as to what those words actually mean. No MP I have spoken to has been able to define it. Those that think they can rarely make it past bland platitudes.

Is levelling up a Macmillanite vision of economic redistribution towards left-behind communities, or a supercharged Singapore-style pro-growth agenda? With no driving principle, no distinctive policy agenda – and no willingness to weather the slightest criticism – Boris Johnson’s government risks becoming an administration adrift.

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage